Engagement

Back from our new adventure, we are all still settling in. I recently started my new job at SMART Technologies. I’ve been noodling on something for almost two months now since my interview there. It’s a disturbing insight on schools, an intriguing insight on unschooling, and a telling insight about our digital native children.

Some of you might recognize SMART as the company that makes digital whiteboards. They have a long history in the education market and a recent one in business. In my interview, I was talking with some folks working on the education side. They told me something that I could not get out of my head. Teachers love the SMART Boards because it helps them with the thing they focus on and worry about most: engagement. The striking thing was less the part about the SMART Board and more the point that their biggest challenge is engagement.

At some level, it isn’t terribly surprising, especially if you have seen classrooms where teachers, often alone, have to manage a class of an ever growing number of kids with a wide range of learning styles and aptitudes. This isn’t about teachers. It’s about where we are with more traditional education – a field that’s very slow to change. Add in digital natives who are very comfortable with tons of streaming content on various screens and instant information gratification and you have a perfect storm in which engagement ends up being the desirable outcome and at some level a bar for success.

But engagement seems like such a low bar. What about interest? What about learning? What about mastery? To me, engagement is the lowest level of outcomes to achieve in education. This is what got me noodling.

I like to try to make sense of things by diagramming them. I often use a simple 2×2 matrix to do that because it forces me to really distill the key aspects. Here was my start at noodling over this problem. I don’t claim correctness here. It helped me and hopefully will provoke some thinking.

engagement 2x2 part 1[Basic Learning 2×2]

Generally in such diagrams, the lower left is not a good place to be. The upper right is. In this case, the model I was thinking about was how kids learn. I simplified it into learning by thinking and learning by doing. Most kids, and adults, use a combination of course. Some kids, like Aidan, may start out just trying things (doing). It’s especially the case with technology. I’ll call that play (more doing, less thinking). Other kids may start with more thinking and less doing. I’ll call that interest. When you put them together, you get learning in the upper right. It’s a bit like the Chinese saying:

I hear and I forget.

I see and I remember.

I do and I understand.

So, if you take the goal as getting to learning, what helps kids with more doing or more thinking?

engagement 2x2 part 2

[How You Get There]

I boiled down into structure and tools. Give a kid a tool, whether a hammer or a computer or something else, and they’ll inevitably start playing with it. It’s a great start. Some kids thrive in this space and keep playing until they get better at it. Other kids need a little more help, which is where structure comes in. Also, just playing with something to eventually land on how to use it well isn’t terribly efficient.

Now take the converse. Some kids like to start by reading about or “studying” something. (Those kids may grow up to be people like me who reads the manual first! 🙂 ). It certainly helps, but it can remain academic unless and until they actually try doing something; i.e. using a tool.

Take math for example. You can spend lots of time doing multiplication. Eventually you may notice some patterns that lead to higher level math. But some structure certainly helps. Or, you could read a lot about how to do multiplication, but it’s hard to “get it” until you actually try to do it. All of this is really scaffolding. It’s a term coined by Jerome Bruner and used in education to describe the support given during the learning process, tailored to the needs of the student, to help them achieve their learning goals.

Scaffolding works well, but it’s hard to do when you are struggling to achieve simple engagement. It must also be a huge challenge with digital natives and the sensory explosion they’ve been exposed to since birth – unlike, for example, children at the time our first models of classroom education were developed. Now, outnumber the teacher with many students in a large class and you can see the perfect storm.

In contrast, engagement tends to be less of an issue in unschooling for a few likely reasons. First, there’s usually an adult around who can help when needed and knows the student well. When students have a hand in choosing what they want to learn and how to learn, it’s certainly makes the process easier. The challenge is that most of us doing unschooling aren’t fully versed in all the best ways to help our kids with tools or structure, when they need it.

As I looked at all of this, I kept noodling about engagement. If engagement was the biggest challenge in many classrooms and something desirable to achieve, then it should be in the upper right corner. What, then would be in the other quadrants?

engagement 2x2 part 3

[The Road to Engagement]

I started with boredom as the “lowest” state, sitting in the unenviable lower left quadrant. Unstructured thinking to me represents daydreaming. It’s not bad in itself, and indeed can be the source of great inspiration, but it doesn’t help the learning process or the teacher. On the flip side, and I know it may be a provocative term, but unstructured doing can be disruption (certainly more to a teacher than a student).

Now, put anything with a screen, including a SMART Board, near a digital native, and you can see how engagement might occur. Many classrooms still prevent students from bringing in smart phones, tablets or computers or severely limit their use. Here’s where I’ll share some very “off path” thoughts.

To a digital native, devices with screens – and truly, it doesn’t matter the form factor – are their core tools. They are almost extensions of their body. We may not want to admit it, but it’s true. Is it really so different than pencils and paper were to those of us who are not digital natives?

One can argue that they can be a source of distraction or a means for teachers to lose control of a class. I’d argue two points. First, paper and pencils can also be a distraction to a (non-digital native) student who is bored. For example, you could tell which high school and college classes I was bored in (even meetings I’ve been in at work!) – by looking at my notebooks. I drew detailed sketches, wrote song lyrics, generally found lots of creative ways to be distracted.

More importantly, while they can no doubt be sources of distraction – and I think all of us as parents have struggled with this – they can also be sources of incredible power and motivation for learning when used well. There are a number of schools that are allowing some devices in now and harnessing them as part of the learning process. I recently saw one example of a grammar school in Kent where the students each had a Surface Pro and the class had a SMART Board. There was one teacher and 20 students. Sure, it was chaotic at times with some daydreaming and disruption going on to be sure. But if I imagine that class of digital natives without the devices, I’d expect things to be far worse. And indeed, she wasn’t just achieving engagement. She was getting some interest, some play, and a good deal of learning as well.

Of course, as Ben Franklin remarked, “Everything in moderation.” Being plugged in all the time can certainly be unhealthy as well. We’ve had our share of discussions/arguments with our own two digital natives growing up with screens and trying to be responsible about screen time. I think digital natives fundamentally embrace technology differently. It is intertwined in their beings and they find ever new ways of using it. While I might be different, I do understand their habits and needs – well at least a bit in this respect at least. I might consider them a little “off path” compared to me and many of us non-digital natives, but then you know where I stand on being “off path.” Pura vida

 

PS: For the record, having taken my “noodling” below the threshold of engagement with my diagramming, I also had to noodle on what “lived” above learning.

engagement 2x2 part 4

[The Final Level]

I see a “doing” path going from learning to experimentation. You might think of it as a deeper level of play, but a highly structured one and generally very goal directed. Some of the best constructivist learning principles follow this route. On the other side, I see going down a thinking path from learning leading to research. I know that word can have a lot of meanings but here I see it as a structured knowledge pursuit. When you combine the two, you can get to mastery. Malcolm Gladwell in his book Outliers notes that it takes about 10,000 hours in a skill/field to achieve mastery. Very likely, it requires both thinking and doing to some degree.

I wonder if, armed with the proper tools, digital natives, at least in some areas, can achieve mastery more quickly. I’m an optimist. I would like to hope so. The amount of information is growing at staggering rates. According to IBM in 2012, “90% of the data in the world today has been created in the last two years alone.” Our digital natives growing up in a world with increasing challenge, complexity and information will need all the help they can get.

A Few Changes

There are ebbs and flows in most things and that includes our new adventure. We made a few more changes on the path to getting unschooling right with Aidan and Vie this past week. Things weren’t working quite as well as we liked and so we needed to do some tuning. The changes have given us all some new energy.

If you remember, we started our path in unschooling with a bit of structure in when we did unschooling; i.e., we had a daily schedule. On the flip side, we gave the young adults a lot of freedom in their choice of “projects” and helped them understand that they were responsible for their unschooling (with help and support of course).

Shortly thereafter I made my first mistake and realized that I was giving the young adults freedom in unschooling pursuits, but not in their schedules. So, I reined that in and allowed them to set their own schedules for when they got up, worked on unschooling, etc. as long as they hit an average of about 20 hours a week.

After working this way for about two months, the pendulum is swinging back a bit in the other direction. While we are still giving Aidan and Vie schedule flexibility, we are adding back more structure to their unschooling work. And I’m taking a little break while Deb, who recently finished working remotely, takes over.

Many things were going on, but I think the biggest factors leading to these changes were overexposure to technology and what I’d probably call dwindling motivation in Aidan and Vie to take unschooling seriously. It got a bit too easy for them to slip into letting technology drive what they did vs. driving it themselves.

In fairness, they are 13 and 11. Having the responsibility for directing one’s schooling path, while an awesome opportunity for pre-teens, can also be a daunting and at times complex task. We adults are still working to get it right.

I had already come to a good understanding of how Aidan learns, which is very different than me. That led to some learning on my part, which I also wrote about. While Aidan did continue to work on his recipes, more and more of his time was spent watching videos on YouTube, not just of cooking, but really anything he could rationalize as unschooling. He’d track his unschooling time meticulously and then switch to watching more YouTube videos – not unschooling related – and not keeping track of his technology time as we had asked.

Vie also tracked unschooling and technology time and focused. The challenge with Vie was in what the topics of focus were. We went from a project comparing digital art tools and another focused on making videos of walkthroughs of Vie playing a video game, to creating a video game, to just wanting to play video games as learning. Topics would change almost weekly and get more abstract.

Each time Vie would change topics, I would spend a number of hours researching the topic, learning the tools (e.g., Adobe Flash gaming engine to build a video game), etc. It was getting frustrating to me.

Vie and I had a good discussion about gamification, Gabe Zicherman’s TED talk How Games Make Kids Smarter, and how Vie wanted to focus on being a video gamer. While I was hesitant, I was open-minded towards trying it. My requirements were simply that Vie describe what the particular video game offered in terms of learning content, and then after playing the game, how would you know that you learned something; i.e., how do you know you were successful at learning what you expected to.

As we went along, it was getting harder and harder to get Vie and Aidan to tell me what they were working on. They weren’t doing the few things I asked them to do. For example, Vie wasn’t writing up what was learned from gaming. I was also getting a lot of “Dad, we are responsible for our unschooling so why do we have to tell you what we are doing?” It is certainly a creative argument that I would probably raise – they are my young adults after all 🙂 – but it wasn’t helping me help them.

What I was coming to realize was that Vie and Aidan, in different ways, really didn’t want to unschool. That didn’t mean they wanted to go to school. They disliked that idea even more. They just weren’t very interested in [any]schooling. Period.

We had set them on this path of unschooling. Here I’ll emphasize unschooling and not home schooling. In Grace Llewellyn’s great book on unschooling, Teenage Liberation Handbook: How to Quit School and Get a Real Life and Education, the book is targeted toward young adults who want to do this and may need help convincing their parents. We had a bit of the opposite situation, so the book didn’t help as much.

I went online looking for some help and guidance. What I found surprised me. I found tons of advice on tactics for helping learners with different subjects, what tools and resources are most helpful, where to go for all sorts of supporting material, etc. I also found strategies for helping learners develop curricula for their unschooling. I even found information on how to help your learner learn a subject they think they dislike, such as math. What I didn’t find was anything helping with getting your learner to want to unschool. Most of the information assumed that that wasn’t a problem. While I can’t say I did an exhaustive search, I did expect to find some information fairly quickly.

Adding to the mix, more and more, particularly with Vie, most of my suggestions and asks were getting met with arguments. Aidan didn’t generally argue, he just often “forgot” about requirements and rules.

I was getting frustrated. I felt like I was giving them lots of room. I was open-minded about what they were working on and how they were doing it. And yet, I felt like it wasn’t working. While I felt that Vie and Aidan were taking advantage of the situation a bit, I felt like I was failing in making unschooling work. And I hate to fail. I know, I need more Type-A Detox. Failing is an opportunity to learn something. While that’s true, and I do embrace that philosophy, it was “different” for me when my kids schooling is on the line.

After one particular night where we caught both the young adults on their computers well past their bed time and against our rule of no technology after bed, and then learned that it was a pattern, we decided we needed some changes. My trust in them was a bit broken. And I needed a little break. This was Deb’s very good idea.

Fortunately, Deb had recently finished her part-time remote work and had time to step in more deeply. We had a family meeting and talked about what we needed to change. We talked about how we needed to add back more structure to the unschooling.

Deb started with having Vie describe to Aidan what middle school was like. Vie had a fairly typical unpleasant middle school experience, full of rules and consequences, lots of behavior management and little actual learning, bullies, and micromanagement of time to name a few. It was a brilliant move. Aidan had had an awesome experience at University Cooperative School, but didn’t have a larger context of what most schools were like. And this got Vie to remember all the reasons why the middle school experience was so bad, hopefully creating some appreciation for unschooling in both cases.

Deb adding back more structure around what they were working on along with a little more structure around daily activities to go back, at least a bit, to a routine. We also limited technology in a few ways. Vie and Aidan needed to write up short descriptions of what they wanted to do online and why before they did. They also needed to use their computers in the main room of the house; no more sneaking computer time late at night. We explained that in time, if they were working well with this structure, then we could try relaxing it a bit.

Deb is also adding in some structured time for conversation – talking about things in the world, why things are the way they are, etc. to spark broader interest and questions. It was a great idea. It’s already led to discussions on economics, body chemistry and biology.

This last week has been a lot more manageable after the changes, even with the serendipitous intervention of having no Internet for 5 days now. While it’s been inconvenient for all of us to not have internet access, and while it’s been frustrating getting the cable company to make a visit to fix it, it’s been interesting to see the household effects of no internet on top of our added structure. Stepping back and taking a break (from technology) may help Aidan and Vie get some perspective. It works for adults too. It already has in my case.

In reflecting on recent events and doing some more research (thanks to the Wi-Fi at the Shack), there are a few insights I had that I’d thought I’d share.

Systems and Goals
Awhile back, Deb found a great article on systems and goals. I had intended to do something with this in a future blog post, but the opportunity for application in our current situation was powerful. Essentially, the author James Clear makes the argument that systems are more valuable than goals. We all grow up – and continue into the work force – setting and achieving goals. Goals aren’t bad. But systems can be more useful. Systems are structured ways for consistently working toward a goal.

As an example, you may have a new year’s resolution to lose some amount of weight or get fit or save some amount of money. Many people abandon these after a short time. The goal doesn’t easily lead to day to day energy and focus on the goal. In contrast, if you simply start going to the gym consistently a few days a week and put in place some structure to make that easy, then you will eventually lose weight/get fit. More importantly, you don’t just achieve the goal. You now have in place tools that will help you consistently achieve that goal in the form of a system.

In our case, I was focusing on the young adults having projects and goals (of their choosing). I did not have in place enough structure (a system) for them to make consistent progress. I think adding back structure to our unschooling will help Aidan and Vie develop more systems for working toward achieving any goal.

Executive Function
Adults have the ability to visualize and plan for the future, think strategically, and see how they need to tune near term actions to better help them with their longer term strategy and goals. It’s called “executive function.” This ability is not well developed yet in pre-teens. Immediate gratification trumps longer term, and more substantial, benefits. We probably all have examples of this coming into play in our early teen years.

Unschooling gives responsibility to the learner to determine what and how they want to learn. They develop a love for learning and with some guidance, they can learn anything. The challenge I see, now, is that without developed executive function skills, it’s hard to expect a pre-teen to be able to do this well. I’m sure in time they may naturally get there, but I also see the role of a parent is to be a significant “flywheel” in this process – something that makes it go better, faster, stronger. At times, I think this means that we need to add more structure and help edit goals and systems a bit.

I’m still getting past my ego and inability to make this work smoothly so far, which is tough. We came into this so optimistic, thinking it would be a wonderful, easy experience. At least I did. I was naïve. It’s hard. Though, it may not be nearly as hard as dealing with some of the negative side effects of schools (over reliance on homework, bullies, less attention to individual learning styles, etc.) over which you feel as though you have little ability to effect change.

However I can’t think of anything more important and so we will keep learning, tuning, and refining what we are doing. We’ll also keep sharing our journey. Maybe it will keep some folks from falling into some of the holes along the way that we did! It is all part of the journey and I think we will all be stronger for it. Pura Vida!

“That which does not kill you only makes you stronger.”

Nietzsche